Back to Top

Pittsburgh Graffiti Woes

January 7, 2009


Two of my favorites: the Carrie Furnace & Southside railroad tunnel
Ah, an auspicious beginning to 2009: more brutal crackdowns on graffiti in Pittsburgh. Two young men, both students at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, were arrested this weekend, and face felony charges. You can read more here . The biggest graffiti local news story of 2008 was the arrest and sentencing of Danny Montano, who tags MFONE. This was his third arrest, and many wanted to make an example of him. Interestingly enough, the 22 year-old art student was arrested at the Mattress Factory, a world-renowned contemporary art museum in Pittsburgh, as he was installing his piece for an exhibition. Montano faced a maximum possible sentence of $300,000 in fines and 130 years in prison. In the end, the judge sentenced him to 2.5 – 5 years in prison and over 200,000 in restitution, in what may be one of the harshest sentences for graffiti in the United States.
This is interesting to me, because as a city with an ever-declining population and tax base, Pittsburgh Police’s graffiti task force has not been able to keep up with graffiti and street art. That and the plethora of empty buildings, closed down mills and factories, and wonderful nooks and crannies like railroad bridges, stairways, alleys, train tunnels, and hollows, have allowed for street art to flourish here.

The Street Changes Forever Everywhere, Summer 2004
While the Pittsburgh graffiti task force has pushed for ever harsher penalties for “illegal” graffiti, There have been several graffiti/street art gallery and public art shows over the past few years, including The Street Changes Forever Everywhere (above) and Static Free.
I have organized and taught many high school workshops about street art; many of the students I have worked with are already cutting stencils, silkscreening stickers, and wheatpasting on their own time. This draconian punishment is troubling to me in my own practice of empowering young people, and of course like a mama bird I worry about them. I also wonder about the future possibility to teach and discuss these forms, even through the relatively uncensored lens of an art museum’s education department. How will the tension between ‘legit’ street art in museums and galleries, use of public and private space, and property damage play out in Pittsburgh?
I’ll leave you with this quote from a recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article. Setting a tone of fear for putting things up on the street, or even being out at night:
Detective Rende said task force members had hoped the Montano case would scare off future graffiti squads. Yesterday he pleaded for the public to keep an eye out for graffiti vandals and to notify police.
“If you see a kid out there with a backpack at 11 o’clock at night and a tossel cap and a hooded sweatshirt, he’s not going to study with his friends,” he said. “There’s a good chance he has paint cans in that bag.”


Lot behind Pittsburgh Filmmakers, Gold Way. A favorite special spot. Art by former student


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

8 comments on “Pittsburgh Graffiti Woes”

This is incredibly unfortunate.
Cities seem to use graffiti one of in two ways,
to capitalize off of using it for tourism a la Barcelona, or to maintain/increase police budgets by busting people like MFONE.
I haven’t read the article yet, tho it sounds like the police, deciding to arrest this artist at a museum, are making a statement that there is no “legit” graffiti.

As an artist I am inspired by graffiti art. I often wonder what would happen if I put up a mosaic on the side of some city building without permission. I’m a unknown, yet talented artist who would never be asked to do a wall mural. Maybe I should do it and see what happens. Would I be arrested?

from my experiences, most people in the city dont even care about graff. i have had on several occasions people come up to me that i had not noticed or walk arount the corner and just keep going by even though they knew what i was doing. there are also unwritten laws, such as no private property(houses, cars) that is obeyed by almost every artist i know. look around, except for a few (and youll recognize that it is usually the same few) and you will see no graff anywhere other than stores and warehouses and random walls, things like that. What i am trying to say is that in my opinion, and i certianly cannot speak for all of pittsburgh, but the police care about this alot more than the people that actually reside in the city.

I think this sentence was rediculious. MFone was a very talented artist and especially with doing LEGAL work recently, its ludacris that this sentence was given to him. Graffiti tasks forces disgust me. They are a waste of city money, work force, time, labor, EVERYTHING.

they are essentially turning the police force into a system for increasing monitary gain.some of the fines that these kids get are outrageous. the city wastes so much money on this topic, while there are still unsolved murder, bank robbery, and rape cases they could be working on…… flat out its all bull shit.

its all about what the people see and trying to gain moral support for the police department. The public knows there’s graffiti here and if the make a spot light of them doing something about it it makes people feel good. If the general public doesn’t know about rapes and murders and muggings that go on and they don’t know that they go unsolved then they can’t judge the police. Catching writers is all about their own glory.

Posts by Mary Tremonte